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On March 2, 2020, Bangladesh confirmed its first three COVID-19 cases, and at the time of reporting, the tally has reached 24 active cases and two deaths.
However, many fear that the actual number may be much higher as questionable quarantine measures coupled with a lack of testing facilities and testing kits may spell disaster for one of the most densely populated countries in the world.
Dr. Poonam Khetrapal Singh, the regional director of the World Health Organisation (WHO), warned that a number of South and Southeast Asian countries including Bangladesh are clearly heading toward community transmission of coronavirus unless “urgent and aggressive measures” are taken.
Only 200 beds have been allocated to treat COVID-19 patients at the Kuwait-Bangladesh Friendship Government Hospital, and many private hospitals in Dhaka have said they lack the infrastructure to treat coronavirus cases at their facilities.
Private health facilities are not permitted to perform the tests to ensure that the process can be monitored by the government and also to prevent any institution from taking monetary advantage of the crises. As a result, only one entity — the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR) — is allowed to test and diagnose COVID-19 cases in Bangladesh.
The Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR) #HOTLINE numbers.
IEDCR said that if contacted and according to necessity, their special medical teams would visit suspected coronavirus patients’ homes and collect samples for testing.#COVID19#STAY_CAREFUL pic.twitter.com/BX4euYGvxN
— Human For Human (@humanforhumanbd) March 17, 2020
However, the IEDCR started out with a stock of only 2,000 COVID-19 test kits and with only one testing facility.
Reports claim that patients with a fever, cold symptoms and breathing problems are not being tested by both private hospitals or IEDCR unless they have a history of travel.
I just called IEDCR hotline to learn about Coronavirus testing since this is the ONLY place that is authorised to test (which is obviously done so that test patients are monitored and marked)
They ask 2 questions: 1. Have you traveled outside the country in the last 14 days?
— Nazia Tariq (@naziatr) March 16, 2020
According to records, only 351 people have been officially tested by IEDCR although 631,538 people have entered Bangladesh since the COVID-19 outbreak on January 21.
Home quarantine implementation
Beginning on March 16, The country imposed a 16-day ban on travelers from most European countries (excluding the United Kingdom). The government also imposed a 14-day compulsory quarantine on Bangladeshis who are allowed to return.
Before the travel ban measures, the government had attempted to bring returnees from a flight originating in Italy — where cases of the virus are the highest in Europe — to a quarantine site on March 15. The move was criticized and many protested the lack of arrangements at the site. They were then allowed to go home on the condition that they self-isolate for 14 days.
Since then, hundreds of expatriates who returned from COVID-19-affected countries have been seen out of their houses — traveling to tourist sites and celebrating wedding ceremonies among other banned activities.
Look at the situation.
Bangladesh government give them 14 days vacation to stay safe at home for #coronavirus. But they are utilising this time by gathering Patenga Sea beach Chittagong.
This is called Bangladeshi. pic.twitter.com/dkQmMOoHqj
— Jabed Ahmed (@MjAhmed27) March 18, 2020
On March 19, the army was deployed to supervise two quarantine facilities in Dhaka – one at Ashkona Hajj Camp near Shahjalal International Airport and the other at Rajuk Apartment Project at Diabari.
Mass gatherings in the time of COVID-19
Starting the first week of March, Bangladesh began postponing or canceling public events such as the birth centenary event of its founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. On March 16, all schools and public universities were declared closed until March 31 as a preventive measure against the spread of the coronavirus.
Despite these measures, over 25,000 people gathered in Raipur Upazila of Laksmipur District on March 18, for a special prayer session to prevent coronavirus outbreak.
Tens of thousands of people gathered in Bangladesh for a mass prayer session on Wednesday, despite fears it posed a risk of spreading the new #coronavirus_19_bangladesh pic.twitter.com/wKoXwUpDXr
— Ahmed Shamim (@AhmedSh19594953) March 20, 2020
After the incident, the government said that all political, social, cultural and religious rallies would be banned from March 20, 2020.
The Center for Disease Control of the Directorate General of Health Services demanded the health ministry to seek out 100,000 COVID-19 test kits and 500,000 surgical masks, but it will take some time to import them.
China has offered to provide Bangladesh with about 10,000 coronavirus testing kits, 10,000 pieces of medical protective clothing, and masks and infrared thermometers to deal with testing people for the virus.
Meanwhile, Ganashystha Kendra, a local health institution in Bangladesh, claims that it had developed a cheap “rapid dot blot” testing kit after two months of research which can detect COVID-19 in 15 minutes. The unit, if mass-produced, would cost around $4.5 United States dollars per kit. Ganashystha Kendra has reportedly obtained government approval to import the materials to produce this.
On March 19, 2020, authorities locked down the whole of Shibchar Upazila in Madaripur district as a number of new COVID-19 patients were detected in the area. The government has also indicated that more areas would be put under lockdown if the situation worsens.
As the situation escalates, many are looking to see how Bangladesh will navigate the crisis, especially because the country hosts over 1 million Rohingya refugees, most of them housed in densely populated refugee camps.
As social distancing goes into full effect to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Rohingya refugees living in camps in Bangladesh don’t hold such a luxury. What happens if the virus takes hold in the world’s most vulnerable communities?https://t.co/CxALewzSmK
— ☔️ (@brownaandlovely) March 19, 2020